New study of 400+ Adirondack waters would focus on climate change impacts, threats
By Zachary Matson
Scientists have outlined a plan for a major new survey of Adirondack lakes to collect data on climate change effects from hundreds of Adirondack Park lakes and ponds.
The outline envisions surveying 400 or more lakes throughout the park, focusing on carbon cycling, the effects of warming on cold-water species, the threat of harmful algal blooms and changes to deep-water oxygen levels.
Planners estimate the project cost at least $6 million over three years and the Adirondack Council and other advocacy groups are pressing for state and federal funding. Some lawmakers have started to line up behind the idea.
Over the summer, researchers from six colleges joined representatives from state and federal agencies and Adirondack nonprofit groups in Saratoga Springs to plot a plan for the survey. The participants adopted the name SCALE: survey of climate change and Adirondack lake ecosystems.
Pete McIntrye, an aquatic ecologist at Cornell University and co-director of the school’s Adirondack Fisheries Research Program, and Kevin Rose, a water scientist at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, led the planning session with funding from the New York State Energy Research and Development Authority. The researchers are working toward a more detailed proposal that represents the vision of the consortium of government agencies, universities and non-governmental groups.
“It’s an ambitious concept, and the reality is it will take substantial funding and hard work by many partners to pull it off,” McIntyre said. “There’s a lot to take stock of.”
NYSERDA for years has funded ongoing monitoring of around 50 Adirondack lakes, but researchers have not surveyed at the scale envisioned in the emerging plan since a landmark effort in the 1980s.
The 1980s survey focused on lake acidification and helped provide a scientific basis for important amendments to the federal Clean Air Act. From 1984 to 1987, researchers collected data from over 1,400 Adirondack lakes, an undertaking that cost over $10 million in today’s dollars. It took another three years for scientists to analyze the data and publish an interpretative report on their findings.
“We are in a better position than we were in the ‘80s. We didn’t know anything, we were just scratching the surface,” said Charles Driscoll, a Syracuse University scientist who co-authored the report following the 1980s survey and participated in the recent SCALE planning session.
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Scientists hope they can conduct a more efficient survey this time around, relying on careful sample selection and technological advances for a broad understanding of how climate change is affecting different kinds of lakes, while sampling fewer sites. Researchers would continue to collect information on how lakes are recovering from acidification, and the new survey would shift attention to threats to lakes that have emerged in recent decades.
“The issues that lakes are facing have changed very substantially in the last 35 years, so we are partly building on the past and partly focused on the present and future,” McIntyre said.
The survey would help guide management decisions on Adirondack lakes for decades to come.
The remote nature of many Adirondack lakes enables researchers to distinguish climate change stressors from other influences such as agricultural runoff and land development. The survey results could help improve understanding of climate change-related impacts beyond the Adirondack Park.
The SCALE survey team would make use of technological developments since the 1980s survey. Researchers could use environmental DNA to assess a wide number of species from a single bottle of water and combine on-the-ground observations with satellite imagery to study lake characteristics.
“Most of those technologies didn’t exist (in the 1980s),” Rose said.
The improved technology also creates challenges. The more information collected in the survey phase, the more data scientists must interpret. McIntyre pointed out that using the newer technologies they could produce as many data points from one liter of water as was collected in the entire 1980s survey.
“The information is only as good as the conclusions you can draw from it, and that takes a lot of time and expertise,” McIntyre said.
A NYSERDA spokesperson said the authority plans continued support of monitoring Adirondack lakes.
“While the (Adirondack Long-Term Monitoring Program) collects data on a wide range of parameters, it was not designed to understand the influence of climate and other emerging stressors on Adirondack lakes, which is why NYSERDA is supporting the development of SCALE,” according to the statement.
Rose and McIntyre are turning their two-page summary into a more detailed survey blueprint for review by the Saratoga workshop participants and outside experts for “its scientific and technical merit,” NYSERDA said. A final plan could be published this summer.
Rose and McIntyre intend to narrow down a representative list of water bodies to study. Under the emerging plan, some lakes could receive more intensive sampling that include time-consuming capture of fish and other field measurements.
The survey, which they said could be organized in time to begin as early as 2023, would also help researchers identify a small set of “sentinel lakes” to continue monitoring well into the future.
While Gov. Kathy Hochul did not include funding for the survey in her budget proposal this year, the idea of a wide-reaching Adirondack lake survey appears to be gaining support among lawmakers.
After visiting the Adirondacks for a retreat this fall, the state’s Black, Puerto Rican, Hispanic and Asian Legislative Caucus included money to fund the survey in their proposed “People’s Budget.” Assembly member Deborah Glick, a Manhattan Democrat, raised the survey during an hours-long budget hearing in Albany this month.
The Adirondack Council called on Gov. Kathy Hochul to include funds for the SCALE survey in amendments to her budget proposed. Council spokesperson John Sheehan said that federal lawmakers have been receptive to the project and that some federal funding is possible.
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